Salmon Questions for an Alaskan Fisherman


Longtime fisherman Randy Hartnell; photo from Vital Choice

My Alaskan friend recently shipped me ten pounds of fresh salmon he caught in the Kenai River. Not a bad cardboard box to find waiting on your doorstep. My first batch—cooked with lemon, sea salt, and pepper— was so tasty, I wanted to jump up and down and invent a happy dance called "The Salmon."

Unlike the light pink, over-boiled salmon at Ikea (sorry Ikea)—and most salmon of my childhood (sorry Mom)—this one was a deeper, almost-red shade. Why is Alaskan salmon so much better? To understand, I went to Randy Hartnell, a longtime Alaskan fisherman and founder of a wild fish and berries company called Vital Choice. After over twenty years of fishing and educating people on sustainability issues, Hartnell knows his stuff and explained some basics of salmon.

Why is wild salmon almost twice as expensive as farm-raised? Comparing the two isn't "apples to apples." They have little in common beyond a shared name. As with other natural, whole foods, "cheaper" is as far removed from "good for you" as a piece of tree-ripened fruit is from artificially flavored orange soda.

As far as health differences go, wild salmon is lower in saturated fats and grows naturally, free of artificial diets and chemicals. Farmed salmon is raised in a manner that makes it vulnerable to parasites and disease, and so it is treated with more antibiotics per pound than other livestock.

So it's worth the bump in price? Wild salmon costs more, but it's one of the last truly wild, naturally organic foods available on earth—and indisputably, one of the healthiest, nutrient-dense foods you can consume. By contrast, the hidden nutritional, environmental, and social costs of farmed salmon are too high.

Is there such thing as a non-evil, acceptable farm-raised salmon? Right now there are no farmed salmon on the market that escape two aspects of “evil.”

First, farmed salmon are confined their entire lives in cramped quarters and fed a manufactured “chow” that contains elevated levels of contaminants and chemicals to artificially color their flesh from white to pink. (Wild salmon are naturally pink.) A more natural “organic” feed could be used, but its higher cost would bring the price of farmed salmon closer to that of wild salmon.

The second serious problem is farmed salmon's devastating impact on fragile marine ecosystems. Salmon "aquaculture" (industrial fish farming) utilizes huge open net-cages, exposing the surrounding waters to enormous amounts of waste, chemicals, diseases, and lice infestations that harm other marine life.

So even if this "non-evil” fish existed, the responsibly farmed salmon would still be nutritionally inferior to wild salmon and sold at a higher price than it is now. Its one remaining advantage over wild salmon would be increased availability.

Do most restaurants use farmed salmon, if not otherwise specified? Absolutely. You can pretty much assume if the salmon listed on the menu isn’t specifically described as “wild,” it's farmed salmon.

In fact, much of the so-called "wild salmon" listed on restaurant menus and sold in grocery stores could be mislabeled farmed salmon. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered this in restaurants in Phoenix, Denver, and Boulder. Once you're familiar with truly wild salmon, you'll have no trouble recognizing the flat taste and oily texture of farmed salmon.

What labels should a consumer look out for when buying salmon? Nearly all wild salmon now originates in Alaska, where the habitat remains pristine and the fisheries management system is a model for other regions. Therefore, when shopping for fresh, frozen, or canned wild salmon, always look for "Alaska" or "Alaskan" on the label. Salmon farming is banned here, so you can be sure that all Alaskan salmon is wild. Another sure sign of wild salmon is to look for the eco-seal of the Marine Stewardship Council on the label or near the point of sale.

Look for labels like: "Line-caught Alaskan Coho," "Copper River Red Salmon," and "Yukon King." Be wary of: "Atlantic," "Chilean," "Norwegian," "Icelandic," "Scottish," or "New Zealand," which all refer to farmed salmon. Your food server or seafood counter clerk should know exactly where their salmon is from. If they try to sidestep the question or seem unsure, consider it a yellow flag—a caution that they’re trying to get market value from the term “wild” without being able to back it up.

Why are the omega-3s in salmon good again? Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that a diet with lots of omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of heart disease, sudden cardiac death, and stroke. Omega-3s can also decrease inflammation and the risk or severity of diabetes, mood disorders, autoimmune diseases, and certain cancers. And research is clear that expectant mothers' intake of omega-3s exerts a major influence on their child's brain development and emotional well-being.

So omega-3s are good fats which fight the "bad" fats? Yes. The omega-3 fatty acids in wild salmon are what you might think of as "good fats." The typical American diet is deficient in these and too rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which tend to increase inflammation. (Relatively speaking, the "bad" fats.)

The human diet evolved to include roughly equal amounts of omega-3s and omega-6s, and today, the typical American diet is estimated to contain as many as 20 to 40 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. This promotes a "silent" inflammatory state in many Americans, believed to trigger our most deadly chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

Wild salmon contains as much as nine times more omega-3s than omega-6s. Farmed salmon has roughly equal amounts of each. Factory-farmed protein (chicken, beef, pork) is raised on grain laden with omega-6 fatty acids, and typically contains 50 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.

What kind of salmon is good for sashimi? Frozen okay? Properly handled frozen salmon is perfect for sashimi. In fact, nearly all fish used for sushi is pre-frozen to kill potential parasites and ensure the fish is safe to eat. Freezing does not alter the taste or texture of fish, so long as it is done correctly. And freezing is the best way to preserve fish quality during transport.

In your opinion, is Copper River Salmon really "worth its weight in gold," as one Serious Eats reader asked? Thirty-five bucks per pound is sure a lot. “Copper River” is a trade name for salmon originating in the Prince William Sound region of Alaska. It is a very high-quality, flavorful fish with a high content of "good" fats. But much of its extremely high price is due to branding and market timing.

Copper River Salmon is the first fresh wild salmon available on the market each spring. A highly successful marketing effort has capitalized on this to create a following that drives exceptional competition for a relatively limited number of fish.

In a given year, the industry estimates that far more "Copper River Salmon" is sold than actually caught. So buyers beware! Wild salmon of equally high quality are available from other areas in Alaska later in the season, and normally priced much more reasonably.

How do you envision the future of fishing and aquaculture? The planet's wild fisheries are under great pressure right now and our oceans are in trouble. But consumers have great power to drive positive environmental change by "voting with their forks." This means choosing wild and farmed species that are sustainably grown and harvested, and avoiding those which aren't. (See "Monterey Bay Aquarium" below)

While it may seem paradoxical, the truth is that to save wild salmon—and other sustainably harvested species—we have to choose to eat them. Doing so rewards and empowers responsible management of fisheries and relieves pressure from vulnerable species, giving existing stocks a chance to survive and perhaps even recover.

It's important to remember that cheap food isn’t really cheap.

In the past two years, high-profile retailers like Walmart and well-known chefs such as Wolfgang Puck have pledged to begin using only sustainably harvested seafood, including both carefully managed wild and farmed species. This is something we all should support with our pocketbooks and our forks.

Helpful Sources

Marine Stewardship Council
Walmart Introduces New Label to Distinguish Sustainable Seafood
Wolfgang Puck Goes “Green” with Sustainable Seafood
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Farmed and Dangerous
Consumer Reports on the Salmon Scam
Fear of Sushi at Home